I hit 4 out of my 6 resolutions for 2008

Well, really I hit 4 out of 5, since the 6th was rendered impossible for medical reasons. Here’s how my New Year’s Resolutions 2008 shaped up:

1.  Walk 1733 miles – the distance from NYC to Aspen – CHECK
Actually exceeded 1800 miles!

2.  See a new country – CHECK
Argentina in August.

3.  Lose more weight than I did in 2007 – FAIL
I regained all of the weight I lost in 2007

4.  Participate in 3 races and run a sub-10min mile – ABANDONED
Discovered that running causes way too much back/shoulder pain thanks to stupid chesticles. The shift to walking saves me $8-10K in surgery and a stint under general anesthesia.

5.  Save/Invest $15,000 – CHECK
$9K whole life policy, $5K Roth IRA, $1K savings account top-up

6.  Find ways to be a better human – CHECK
Got certified in First Aid & CPR, donated over $800 to charity (which is $800 more than last year), played Santa to 3 needy NYC families, made up for food pantry shortages at a teen shelter, bought 50% of Starfish’s new couch after her apartment burned down, used extra luggage space to bring $100 worth of bookbags and school supplies to a charity in Mexico while on vacation.

Tomorrow I will call my Resolutionist friend and we’ll discuss all this while we make our 2009 lists. It won’t be easy, given the huge uncertainties I’m facing in the next few months. I feel like I should just skip the first quarter and do resolutions based on my April birthday.

A Great $$ Finish to 2008, Plus a Racy Story

Oh boy am I glad that I didn’t end up snowbound in Aspen for an extra few days – I worked my butt off the last two days and made stacks of cash, and I just got booked for a “very chill” (his wife is pregnant, but no one knows yet) impromptu party in the West Village tonight, where I will earn anywhere from $220 to $600. The host is still waiting to hear from most people if they’re interested (so far, 3 are), but we both reckon that the moment one person returns to the party after their massage singing my praises, that the others will likely want in on the deal. This could very well turn out to be the best 3 consecutive days of business ever. [Update:  Did 4 massages, made $420 – zipadeedoodah! – and got home at 11:55pm]

Plus, it’s 1pm…offices are about to start announcing early closures. An appointment or two before this evening’s event is not outside the realm of possibility. Oh, and I’ve got someone already lined up for 11am tomorrow. I love being busy, and not just for the money – my work can be very satifying.

Is it too much to hope that New Yorkers just needed a break from the constant media stream of economic doom and gloom to get in touch with their own reality?

Oh, and since none of you know me, I’ll share one of the strangest requests I’ve received this year as long as you promise not to judge me – I do not invite these offers, but in my line of work they just happen even if you’re 40 lbs overweight, pushing 40, wear baggy t-shirts and no make-up (I sound like a real charmer, don’t I). A somewhat attractive client I worked on for the first time 2 weeks ago wants to pay me $110 (my early housecall fee) for an hour of “CFNM”. This is fetish-speak for Clothed Female Naked Male – what can I say, I met a dominatrix at a Scottish wedding and a stripper on a flight to Vegas, so I collected a lot of new vocab. He wanted me to bring a female friend or relative, sit in his hotel room, drink coffee, and comment on his naked body – no contact. One part of me thinks “ew, that’s creepy”, the other part says “no law is being broken, just take the idiot’s money”. After all, I’m very used to being a Clothed Female in the presence of a Naked Male – that’s about 50% of my work enviroment! Alas, I don’t even have to debate the moral dilemma: there’s not a soul I could ask even if I wanted to.

Travel Budget: 2008 & 2009

suitcaseEvery year, I include “see a new country” amongst my resolutions. It’s the only one I’m guaranteed to hit without fail. I currently have $6000 a year earmarked for this part of my life, and it’s too important to my sanity and the core of who I am to give up completely no matter what economic blows rain down upon my poor little self-employed head.

Results for 2008
Mexico in May:  $1000
Argentina in August:  $2300
Colorado in December:  $900 (assuming I get that $80 bus fare refunded)
TOTAL:  $4200

Yes, I came in under budget for the year, but only because I cancelled my plans to spend Thanksgiving week in India when Lehman collapsed and wrought havoc on my personal economy. That trip would have been about $1150 airfare + $650 hotels/food/trains/etc = $1800.

Plans for 2009
Africa in April (3-4 weeks):  $3000
Colorado in September (wedding):  $1200
…Bad economy:  No more trips
…Eh economy:  Thanksgiving 3-day weekend in Vegas @ $800
…Okay economy:  T’giving 5-day weekend in Sevilla, Spain @ $1300
…Great economy:  T’giving week in India or Syria @ $1800-2300
TOTAL:  $4200-6500

In case you can’t figure it out from my numbers, I’m not a 4-star kinda gal. I actually like quirky guesthouses/inns/B&Bs that go for about a third the price of a hotel room, and I think public transportation is fun to figure out even if I don’t know the language. Heck, especially if I don’t know the language! I travel alone, so fancy restaurants are out of the question…I can deal with dining solo, but not in a cloth-napkin kind of place. I’ve never traveled with anyone who liked to travel this way, just a couple of boyfriends back in the 90s who barely tolerated my choices some of the time – and usually bitched about how they deserved better. I swear, you could quintuple my income and the only thing that would change is using taxis instead of public transportation for airport transfers. I call my travel style “luxury student”.

Inauguration Vacation: DC v. Nairobi

This is not a political post – it’s just a fun comparison of travel costs!

A few minutes ago, I had the dubious pleasure of listening to Montel Williams do the promo voiceover for some crappy set of Obama memorial coins, sounding as much like the president-elect as possible. For some reason, it got me thinking about BudgetsAreSexy’s post a few weeks ago about Washington DC locals pimping out their homes for the inauguration, and about a conversation I overheard in Aspen airport about shopping for an inaugural ballgown. It occured to me how much more original and meaningful it would be to witness it on live TV in Kenya, where Obama’s father was born.

So of course, I had to check out how the two destinations compare in costs for January 19-22…

Washington DC
Flight, direct from Chicago:  $388
3 nights at the Doubletree hotel in freaking Bethesda, MD:  $1677
TOTAL:  $2065

Decent (not cheapest) flight NYC-Nairobi:  $1254
3 nights at the Hilton in Nairobi:  $631
TOTAL:  $1885

So if you’re one of the many Americans out there who want a front row seat to history in the making, may I suggest Kenya for both atmosphere, authenticity – and a savings of $180? Heck, pick 2-star accommodation and make it a whole week for the same price!

And I thought student loans sucked in 1992

Inspired by Shtinkykat’s recent post about her own student loans, DogAteMyFinance’s advice to Polly, and a confession from my sister who graduated nursing school 2 weeks ago.

1992 is when I graduated from a private university that covered about 50% of my tuition, etc. with grants and scholarships. Fees for tuition, room and board back then were $16K when I started and $21K when I finished – about average for that era. And I thought those prices sucked, but now? How in the world does anyone cover nearly $50K a year? In 1992, we were in a recession and starting salaries for fresh graduates averaged $24K a year (I had friends on $17K, $22K and $28K respectively in NYC, so that’s the basis of my numbers) – a little more than the equivalent of a year’s costs for private college. By that standard, average salaries for fresh graduates should be $60K. Hah, I don’t think so – not even before the stock market crash this fall!

I financed my undergrad years with about 50% scholarships and grants, then 10-15% cheap Perkins loans, and the rest out of my pocket from $2/hr babysitting jobs and a heavy schedule of part-time jobs during school. No government/stafford/sallie mae for me – Mom wanted it that way so the student loan folks wouldn’t find my extremely-defaulted dad. I graduated owing the Perkins folks $6200 (really $7200, but somehow $1000 disappeared off the original loan amount…hm, an error or a fairy godmother?), which came to $198 per quarter for 10 years. I moved to Scotland and earned peanuts for 8 years, and paid it off within 6 months of returning to the USA. I also got a master’s degree (to date unused) in 1999, by which time I qualified for domestic tuition rates in the UK so it cost me a paltry $4K – paid with savings, and my living expenses were really cheap and covered by my $125/week part-time typing job. I feel pretty freaking lucky to have pulled that one off, given what grad school costs here!

I’m not sure I’d even go to college if I were 18 now. Seriously, I grew up in a state with less-than-wonderful state schools, and I was neither an athlete nor a beauty queen (I’ll try not to get into how ridiculous it is that these are the main sources of education prize money). The best I can say about those qualities in me is that I’m co-ordinated and on the nice side of ordinary-looking. Even at that age, I’d feel that saddling myself with $50-100K student loan debt was a bad investment for someone without a focus or goal (as I was then, and still am). But also, at that age, I never questioned that I was college-bound, so who knows. I’d probably end up at Rutgers, resisting the lure of academic laziness by class sizes well into the triple digits.

Bridezilla just graduate with a BSc in Nursing, and confessed to me that she’s got $20K in student loans and is carrying a $6K balance on her credit card. Yes, this is the same sister who slaughtered $20K in credit card debt a few years ago to prepare for 2.5 years of being a full-time student. We talked about it yesterday while hiking on a snowy trail in the Rockies. The first piece of advice out of my mouth was to keep an eye out for one of those notices about a change in terms and conditions from her credit card company (Chase), because that would hugely affect her ability to knock that balance down. She has historically been terrible at opening money-related mail, and I have a feeling she may blow off this advice. I reiterated it on the phone this afternoon. There are three upsides to her debt:  (1) she was able to focus so completely on her academics that she scored a 3.85 GPA, which sets her up well for an MS and other advanced qualifications, (2) she’s going to be a nurse, so even if she can’t get exactly the job she wants, she’ll still get a decent-paying job as soon as she passes her licensing exam in about 6 weeks, and (3) credit card debt scares the hell out of her, which means she will bust a gut to pay it off asap. I’m also glad she “confessed” to me and our mom over Christmas, because that sort of behavior punctuates the problem and sets her back on the right track.

A lot of people draw parallels with money problems and weight problems, and I’m regrettably in the same position with my weight…I dropped 11 lbs in the first 4 months of the year, still had 22 to go to meet my 100-lb loss goal, then proceeded to regain 23 lbs or so (facing the scale on Wednesday) in the past 7 months. We’re both climbing back on our respective wagons – me this week, her when she starts her first professional nursing job (probably early Springtime).

Cheap Week in Aspen

This week’s vacation in the snowy playground of the rich and famous has been very budget-friendly, but not for the right reasons.

Brother “Six Figures” got High Altitude Pulmonary Edema, to the point where taking a shower or 3 stair steps caused all kinds of coughing spasms and 15 minutes of breathless hell. It was the blue lips, however, that won him an all-expense paid trip to the Emergency Room, where they determined that his oxygen saturation was dangerously low (70%). They sent him home 3 hours later with an oxygen tank w/nasal canula and an Rx for antibiotics in case the fluid build-up in his lungs was threatening pneumonia. But even before last night’s excursion to the ER, we were doing less than planned in order to keep an eye on him and not let him feel too left out. Lesson to be learned: Sea-level dwellers should NEVER EVER drink their faces off 8 hours after landing @ 8000 feet. Between dehydration, reduced organ function due to oxygen restriction, and a little flu bug from airplane travel, Six Figures put himself well into the danger zone. Had he been a less robust specimen, this could have resulted in a stroke.

Bridezilla has pretty big issues with anyone treating her to anything. My mom decided months ago that she would cover $300 towards the Christmas dinner tab as part of her gift to us (table of 8), and Bridezilla was annoyed by how often she brought this up and remarked on how the bill was lower than expected. Um, even I was a bit surprised even though I knew the manager was treating us to a selection of appetizers (fries drizzled with truffle oil and pecorino shavings, a charcuterie board, and something else I’ve managed to forget). Then her car battery died, and Mom & I decided to go halfsies on a new one…she got all insulted. Now everyone is putting me in charge of repaying her for little things (little to us, but a lot to someone who just graduated school and doesn’t have a job), like $20 for lunch wraps and stuff like that. I’m hoping to take her and her fiance out for a casual dinner tonight, but who knows if she’ll let me.

And I utterly failed as the KTM – for the first time in my life, I left the house without any cash on me, totally by accident. So Bridezilla had to lay out $10 for my shooting range permit. I also didn’t get 2 of my 3 action hero activity sessions because her fiance’s back was out and he couldn’t manhandle the snowmobile, and quite honestly it’s been too damn cold to even WANT to try cross-country skiing.

So other than the $80 I coughed up for the bus ticket and $60 towards Christmas dinner, I think I’ve spent about $15. I feel like a cheapskate…not sure if it’s because others picked up a couple of smallish tabs or if it’s residual guilt from spending a whole day with nothing in my pockets but a few dimes, literally.

Lesson Learned: Travel Delay Humbuggery

My mother – and the rest of the people on her flight – were treated so badly by United that you could probably justify a lawsuit. Don’t tell people who’ve been waiting 6-8 hours for a delayed flight and are lined up and ready to board as instructed that they’ve been cancelled for the night and instead, another flight’s passengers will be boarding. And during those 6-8 hours, they were told not to leave the lounge or risk losing their seat if their name was called and they weren’t there…which means no one ate and bathroom trips were few and far between. There’s a lot more to the story, including an unjust handcuffing/arrest, a nasty non-supervisor refusing to get a higher-up, and just being told they were on their own for the night, better luck tomorrow. This was not due to weather. Apparently some corporate jet idiot blew a tire on the Aspen runway, and no flights were able to get in or out for all that time. Everyone ended up running for the last bus to Aspen that night, which got them in at 2am and cost $80. Oh, wait, United did offer a $20 discount voucher towards Greyhound, which doesn’t even go to Aspen. 

My delay was purely weather-related, and my only complaint about United (aside from the rant last week about losing my original itinerary on their whim) was that they must be used to this for flights to Aspen and should have been better prepared with a mass solution or announcement instead of making 100+ people line up for individual solutions. So I hit the customer service line AND called the customer service line AND consulted Bridezilla, who was very used to how conditions affect transportation (she’s a Rocky Mountain Rescue volunteer). The phone agent – yes, this involved another screaming match with the automated voice system, this time in public – pretty much read from the script about how I could try stand-by tomorrow. I said “but those flights are fully booked, and I’m one of 100-120 people in this position”. He said yeah, I was right, we were realistically looking at the 24th. So hotel and no family, in Denver, for 2 days out of 4 with no guarantees? Screw that, I took the number for the Refund line (which I haven’t called yet, but I suspect will be the worst automated system EVER, if the number even works!) and headed for ground transportation. The last bus was leaving in 10 minutes and I got the next-to-last seat: $80. I got in at 3am and got a bit ripped off for the cab ride from the airport but didn’t care one tiny bit – Bridezilla was snowed in, it was my only option. Everyone on the bus was very good-natured and just grateful that there actually was a bus running. We were probably the last one that got through before they shut down the highway between Vail and Aspen due to blizzard conditions. My luggage arrived about 12 hours later by truck, and I’m awfully glad I hauled ass through the airport and got that last bus, driven by a man who just needed a red coat and a fuller beard to be a dead ringer for the jolly old elf himself.

At the moment, my wallet is $97 lighter than it should be, but I’m not complaining. Okay, so it’s eating at me that United’s screw-up with my itinerary caused me to lose $300 worth of business on Monday, but mostly I’m just so glad to be here with everyone. I’ll contact Refunds on Friday and get that ball rolling, and then I’ll have a ball writing a scathingly brilliant customer services letter because I doubt they’ll want to give me $80 back.

In the meantime, I’ll be doing my best to avoid eating lunch in the same restaurants as Paris Hilton, Mariah Carey, Jack Nicholson, and the dozens of other celebs that are currently hitting the local slopes. Why do they have to eat at normal places, ugh.

Cheap Christmas Weekend

I am a Christmas dork, which is really quite something for an atheist, albeit of the Catholic-born persuasion. I mentioned before that I love love LOVE wrapping, and my second favorite thing is putting the tree up. My best friend lives on Long Island, and every year we drive out to her local Christmas tree farm where you can cut your own for about $25. We have had many misadventures, yet we persist. This year, the freaking farm was closed – on a Saturday, 5 days before Christmas. We spat, we cursed, and I joined her in her pissed-offness at having to pay full price for a tree somewhere else. She managed to negotiate a $15 discount, then the bastard outwitted her by adding on $5 in “tax”. Um…never in my life has there been tax added on to the price quoted for a tree. And this after she worked the Sicilian connection and promised him homemade Sicilian treats – which we delivered 20 minutes later. She’s better at letting these things go than I am, but honestly, that $10 saved is probably what it cost her in ingredients to make her gourmet treats.

We were planning to go dutch on a nice dinner and call it our Christmas gift to each other. She’s been unemployed since March, but made a crapload of money in the first 10 weeks of the year and isn’t hurting yet – she even said this weekend that the best habit she ever developed was living below her means. Anyway, one of her good friends flew in that evening for the holidays and suggested we all get together – his dad joined us and paid. She covered the tip and we made a joke about me repaying her for half and calling it a Depression-era Christmas.

The next morning, we hit CVS for a ton of freebies that impressed the hell out of her. I totally messed it up though, mostly on my Mom’s club account. Darn those sneaky slightly-different eye shadows! I should have left CVS with at least $25 in ECBs for my mom to use and came away with just $7. I couldn’t return the mistakes because I’d paid for them with ECBs and…ugh, I won’t bore you with the adminny ins-and-outs of returns. Anyway, I texted her the bad news, and she replied “Istillloveyouanyway”…yeah, Mom hasn’t figured out how to make a space in a phone text. I’m getting over the mistake though. I came away with $113 worth of Listerine, clinical-strength deodorant, energy bars and drink mixes, eye shadow (my nemesis!), nail polish, contact lens solution, Zantac (for Starfish), Excedrin and Halls cough drops – for $1.27 out of pocket and left with $30 in ECBs. I started with $18 in ECBs and would have come away with $8 more if I hadn’t screwed up the eye shadow. Mom, in absentia, got $95 worth of stuff for $4 out of (my) pocket. Because we drove the young cashier crazy with 8 trips to the register to pull this off, and she was very patient and helpful (and impressed!), we gave her one of the eyeshadows because, looking at her, it was clearly her favorite cosmetic item. She seemed genuinely touched. As for the haul, well, everyone is getting Listerine in their stocking – good thing Mom knits huge stockings!

Christmas Tipping: Your Massage Therapist

Full disclosure: I am a massage therapist. I am self-employed and have never worked any other way, so take this advice with that in mind.

I do not expect tips or bonuses from my clients at Christmas. A few choose to do so anyway (very few – maybe half a dozen of my regulars, just to give you a benchmark), and it ranges anywhere from an extra $20 to a full session’s fee. I didn’t even know that people were “supposed to” include their massage therapists in the list of people to tip as Christmas until I read a few tipping guideline articles online. Really, if you tip your therapist all year long, there is no need. Even if you’re a non-tipper, we’re not expecting it — but we do know there are a few who’d prefer to hand over a chunk at once than do it in dribs and drabs throughout the year.

I believe if someone works in a spa or other massage establishment, Christmas bonuses come from their employer as they do in other industries. Certainly that has been the case for a few of my friends who have chosen to work in spas or gyms. So tipping in this situation makes even less sense than in mine.

My advice to anyone with a regular massage therapist: if you tip all year long, don’t bother. If you don’t, I suggest giving 1-2x the cost of your usual session depending on how often you see him/her. If you can’t bear the idea of ignoring your personal pain alleviator at Christmas, slip in a higher-than-usual tip and say something like, “there’s a little extra in there this time to get yourself a little something from me”. That way (a) we don’t start thinking you’ve decided to multiply your usual tip, and (b) we don’t come running after you to give it back, thinking you made a mistake…yup, I’ve done that. Sometimes my honesty borders on foolish.

What to do with a $100 Christmas tip?

My most committed client (weekly for almost 5 years – that’s about 2 months’ rent out of 12) gave me a $100 Christmas bonus. Last year I just plopped it in the fireproof lockbox with the rest of my income and didn’t do anything special with it.

Last weekend, my mom told me that she spent last year’s $100 Christmas bonus from her 3 hours/week extra job on a nice leather jacket, deeply discounted in the after-Christmas sales. When her boss complimented her on it, she said “you have good taste”. It pleased him to know that she actually got something with it instead of just letting it get absorbed into the household. So I’d like to take a leaf from her book and get something with the money that he can see evidence of.

There’s only one material thing I can think of that I want or need around the price tag…some kind of artsy wall clock or mirror, maybe with a colorful mosaic around it, something like that. Preferably one I find on my world travels, even though it would be a major pain in the, well, back and shoulders and baggage allowance, to bring something like that back with me. I have almost nothing on my walls as it is, so it doesn’t matter what kind of place I move into next year, I’ll still need something. Mm, leaning towards a clock – less likely to break, and I don’t really like catching random scary glimpses of myself in the mirror. Wonder what I’ll stumble across in Africa, since I suspect Plan B (6-week gap between leases) is the most likely path I’ll be taking.

There, that’s my best attempt at materialism. And I can tell him “all the better to pace your massage sessions with”.